There are landmarks in London that do not require discovery; they simply linger in plain view, confident in their ability to draw you in. The Tower Bridge, with its fairy-tale twin towers, needs no introduction, nor do the gleaming golden gates that guard the perimeter of Buckingham Palace. These pillars of English aristocracy are at the top of every tourist’s must-see list, and quite rightly so. London is overflowing with monumental drawcards and awe-inspiring sights, and they are all worthy of exploration. However, there is another equally alluring side to this historical city that requires just a little more effort to seek out. Scattered throughout the vast metropolis are countless pockets of local life that offer a genuine glimpse into real London life. Little neighbourhoods blend seamlessly into the next in a cacophony of sights and sounds that make London one of the most fascinating and desirable cities in which to live; and yet each district has its own distinct charm and character.
From the antique market stalls which flank Notting Hill’s Portobello Road to the massive expanse of parkland in Hampstead Heath, there are lovely things to delight and discover in every part of London. Picturesque streets lined with pretty townhouses compete for space with trendy eateries and quirky, independent shops, while hidden galleries and out of the way market squares create welcome distraction in otherwise sleepy residential backstreets. There is no better way to enjoy a lazy Sunday than a wander through one of London’s many charming neighbourhoods.
Hardly a tiny village, the borough of Islington in London’s inner north is a bustling area made up of more than two hundred thousand residents. Life in Islington is as vibrant and hectic as any centrally located city suburb, but if you wander off the beaten path you will find a welcome sanctuary amongst the chaos of the high street. Tucked out of sight behind the buzz of Upper Street is Camden Passage, a lively pedestrianised street lined with antique stalls, cafes, vintage and contemporary shops, restaurants, and historical pubs. Free to amble slowly, taking photographs without fear of getting hit by a passing car, I feel myself begin to relax and unwind. Sundays are a day of discovery for Dan and I and we love the thrill of anticipation that comes with each new weekly jaunt. Coffee is usually at the forefront of our minds, and we always begin our adventures with a good flat white and a flaky pastry to gather our thoughts and plan our attack.
Warmed by our coffees we soldier on, now tempted to visit the tiny second-hand stalls we spy at the end of the lane. Passing clusters of brightly coloured cafes and shops makes a trip down Camden Passage a visually stimulating treat. With lunch on our minds, we attempt to move quickly but our hurried steps are promptly thwarted by a teeny tiny flower shop situated at the entry to the passage. Bunches of seasonal blooms and potted plants are an inviting welcome and even those who are passing by, unaware of the hidden world within, may be enticed to step inside. I poke my head inside the cosy space which is crammed with artfully arranged cut flowers and sprigs of drying grasses. Fighting the urge to scoop up every posey into my greedy arms I resign myself to practicality and with one last deep breath carry the perfume with me as I make my way along the street, flowerless but happy.
I also try to resist the urge to stop every two seconds for photo opportunities while making a beeline to the handful of antique stalls at the end of Camden Passage. Our lunch reservation must wait because nothing can distract me from a good old fossick and the possibility of a vintage bargain or two. I’m intrigued by an elderly gent in a colourful knitted scarf who effortlessly complements his vibrant array of reproduction French vintage posters in similarly lurid primary colours. As I am always drawn to pottery, I immediately become fascinated by a huge terracotta bowl patterned with hand painted swirls and signed underneath by Jim ’95. Not quite as thrilling as unearthing an 18th century urn at a French flea market, but Jim had his appeal and at just fourteen pounds I certainly felt satisfied with my treasure. In this case the thrill of the purchase far outweighed the practicality of taking it home, so I tucked my bulky new treasure awkwardly under my arm and off we trotted to find lunch.
We took respite inside Prawn on the Lawn, a Cornish seafood restaurant with a sister location in the heart of Islington, and a pleasant 18-minute walk from Camden Passage. Not even the absence of grass or the distinct lack of sea views could diminish the excellent seafood on offer here. The freshest catch is delivered each morning directly from the Cornish coast and perfectly cooked on site by talented chefs and served by knowledgeable wait staff. With a daily changing menu of mostly share plates, Prawn on the Lawn gives you the opportunity to try the best of what the Cornish sea has offered up that very day. Dan is lured in by the crispy whole prawns with a lemony sumac coating and tangy lime mayo, while I order the seared tuna with soy and spring onion. The tuna is sliced thinly and practically melts on my tongue while the prawns arrive with a recommendation from the waiter who simply insists that we eat the whole prawn, shell and all, but warns us to be wary of the sharp little spike on the tip of the head. While I adore seafood the thought of munching down on a prawn’s brain does not fill me with joy. No need to tell Dan twice, straight down the hatchet, head and all. I meekly bite into the body and discard the tiny head into the allocated shell bowl provided. Those tiny protruding prawn eyes are a bit too much to bear. Though never one to back down, and at the risk of seeming unworldly, I close my eyes and pop the whole thing into my mouth. What a revelation! The sweetest, most succulent prawns I have ever tasted. As Dan scoops up the remaining antennae from his plate, I feel the need to draw the line.
Happily satiated, we meander through the residential backstreets weaving our way past rows of beautiful townhouses whose lawns are sprinkled with tiny purple crocus and pops of yellow daffodils promising an early spring. A majestic nineteenth century pub presides over elegant Canonbury Road and is a captivating sight with its neo classical columns adorning the façade like the backdrop to some Greek tragedy with the stage curtains pulled back. Just beyond the pub we spy the New River Walk, a short stretch of enclosed waterway lined with willowy trees and dotted with wooden benches for locals to languish in the afternoon sun. Ducks and moorhens glide peacefully along the crystal-clear water, bobbing their heads down occasionally in the quest for food. Originally this twist of canal was the above ground section of an aqueduct built in the 17th century to bring water from Hertfordshire in the north down into central London. In the 1950’s a greenspace was constructed around the pathway to allow access to locals and in more recent years playgrounds and gardens have been added.
We sit on one of the nearby benches with the sun on our backs and watch as a parade of dog walkers saunter by. It is relaxing to observe the various antics of the different breeds all united in their quest for toilet stops and squirrel chasing. This seems like a good place to while away an afternoon.